The site where former Stanford student Brock Turner?sexually assaulted a young woman known as Emily Doe in 2015 is a mulch-covered slope next to a basketball court, dotted by a few trees. It is still there, largely unchanged, though the area it abuts, where there used to be dumpsters enclosed by a wooden fence, has since been turned into a small commemorative park.
I was there on a beautiful spring day in March; a water feature now trickles next to two benches surrounded by landscaped vegetation and a low stone wall. A plaque bearing Doe’s words was to be installed there, too, an attempt at a sort of commemoration that did not materialize?after the university and the victim could not agree on what it would say. If you didn’t know about Turner’s crimes, you might sit here and listen to the quiet fountain in the sunshine, looking out across the basketball court at Lake Lagunita, the mostly dry drainage basin around which members of the campus bike and jog, without knowing why this little park exists.
“I think when people hear ‘campus rape,’ some people, they have a mental picture that’s probably wrong, but it’s really?wrong in this case,” Michele Dauber, a Stanford law professor and sociologist, said to me, as we walked over from the spot on the slope to a path on the other side of the basketball court, along the lake. From there, we looked back toward the crime scene from the approximate vantage point of the two Swedish graduate students who were biking in the area when, according to one of them, Carl-Fredrik Arndt, they saw the then-19-year-old Turner “thrusting,”?over what appeared to be a motionless body. It was a disturbing enough sight that they ran over to Turner, who they say bolted, leaving his victim, still unconscious, lying in dirt and pine needles, naked from the waist down, save for her boots. “Whatever comes into your mind when you hear campus rape, this is not it,” Dauber continued. “This is the stranger-danger-in-the-bushes scenario that your mother warned you about.”
The assault occurred at around 1:00 a.m. on a January night in 2015, near a Kappa Alpha fraternity party that Turner and the victim had both attended; there were few lights in the area. (More have been added since.) According to the incident report, it was there on the ground that the then-22-year-old Doe’s dress was lifted up, her underwear removed, and her bra exposed. Police suspected that Turner had photographed her breast (evidenced, the prosecution said in its sentencing document, by a message he received in an app called GroupMe saying, “Whos [sic] tit is that”), and she was digitally penetrated, according to a police interview with Turner. Doe woke up in the hospital around 4:00 a.m. She had no memory of the assault, nor of the several hours preceding it, as recorded in the police report. Though Turner, at one point, while questioned by police, said that he couldn’t remember how he and Doe ended up on the ground, a year later he testified?that Doe had uttered yes or sure three times, affirmatively consenting to various aspects of their encounter.
After two days of jury deliberations, in March of 2016, Turner was convicted?of three felonies, including assault with intent to commit rape. He faced a maximum of 14 years?in state prison; the prosecution asked for six.
If those convictions indicated a cut-and-dry version of the night’s events, the sentencing two months later blurred it: On June 2, 2016, Judge Aaron Persky sent Turner?to county jail for only six months—of which he served just three—and gave him three years probation, citing the “severe impact” prison would have on the once heavily recruited athlete (who, the probation report also said, had already “surrendered a hard-earned swimming scholarship”). Turner was also required to register as a sex offender. Persky, himself a Stanford alum (and a former captain of the club lacrosse team), said that?Turner had expressed remorse, and that “up to this point, he complied with social and legal norms sort of above and beyond what normal law-abiding people do.” That leniency inspired Doe to publicly release the victim’s impact statement?she had read in court, a document detailing more than a year of her struggles with physical, psychological, and emotional trauma incurred by the assault and trial. It, and the outrage that it provoked, subsequently went viral.
It also inspired Dauber—a tenured law professor at Stanford, a family friend of Doe’s, and an outspoken critic of Stanford’s sexual assault disciplinary process—and a group of like-minded supporters to come together over one shared goal: to recall Judge Persky.
On June 5, Santa Clara County voters will have the chance to do just that, and to choose between two other candidates who are running to replace him: Cindy Hendrickson, currently an assistant district attorney, and Angela Storey, a civil attorney. This is an enormously rare occurrence: A recall is allowed under the California Constitution for elected officials (superior court judges serve six-year terms), but the movement against Persky marks the first judicial recall, in any state, to make it on a ballot in 36 years. (The last successful judicial recall in California was in 1932.)
For Dauber and the other volunteers who have spearheaded the effort, a vote for or against recall is a vote for or against the way that American society has normalized sexual violence against women, which is to say it’s a vote against rape culture itself. Critics of Persky’s sentencing say that he clearly identified with Turner as a white man (in a state where, as of 2014, the ratio?of black to white prison inmates was 8.8 to 1), and as a former Stanford athlete, in determining whether or not to send Turner to prison and for how long. Persky gave Turner less than a tenth of the time desired by the prosecution, but it’s worth noting that Persky also sentenced Turner within the bounds of the probation report, which suggested “a moderate county jail sentence”; recall supporters believe that report was also biased toward Turner, and that the judge should have made a better final call. Both Persky and the probation officer cited Turner’s remorse as a reason to sentence him less harshly, despite a sentencing memo?submitted by the prosecution that claimed Turner had misrepresented his own innocence and lied about being exposed to drugs and alcohol for the first time at Stanford. This was central to the remorse he expressed: In a letter to Persky, Turner said that he regretted the “party culture and risk taking behavior that I briefly experienced in my four months at school.”
“[Persky] saw a young man with a bright future,” said Dauber. “He didn’t see what was before him. He saw, instead, an image that was untrue and refracted through the lens of bias and privilege.” This sentiment, that Persky’s empathy lay more with Turner than with Doe, was also expressed by critics after a statement Turner’s father made in court?w?as made public: he characterized the assault as “20 minutes of action,” and any time in prison as “a steep price to pay” for it.
The recall campaign has unearthed additional cases in which Persky, they say, also adjudicated leniently for defendants of similar social status—cases where the accused are all male, largely white, and/or connected to a university or to Silicon Valley, though a report by the California Commission on Judicial Performance,?which the recall campaign dismisses as “one-sided,” concluded that there was insufficient proof of Persky’s judicial misconduct, including accusations of bias. And it has sparked a contentious battle not only between recall proponents and defenders of Persky, but also with members of the legal community, who worry that a recall threatens judicial independence, no matter whether the sentencing was fair or not; and with public defenders, who say that black and brown defendants will suffer the most from a rash of harsher sentencing, if judges start to fear they will be recalled for the opposite.
Yet the recall has vaulted over every hurdle it has faced so far, including gathering more than 90,000 signatures (far more than what was required to get the measure on the ballot) and seeing Persky’s attempt to block the election by citing a procedural error rejected by an appellate court. Its organizers are a cadre of mostly women volunteers, some of whom are sexual assault survivors themselves, who were outraged on behalf of Emily Doe in 2016, watched Donald Trump win the presidential election a few months later, and have since seen the #MeToo movement?blaze through the halls of power elsewhere in America. They are now seeking a reckoning on their home turf, taking on two behemoth institutions: Stanford University and the law.